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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

12 Comments

  1. Adam Riggio
    September 23, 2013 @ 10:40 am

    A wonderfully meta post. The alternate timeline where Assignment:Earth became the legendary hit show and Star Trek the quirky afterthought mutates into your meta-fictional temporal incursion narrative, then into your actual interpretation of the episode that was produced, ending with a brief nod to the possibility that the meta-fictional narrative has a hint of real-world truth to it. I am impressed.

    As someone who's watched as much quirky 1970s Hollywood over the years as I have, I always found it weird to see Teri Garr in TOS. It almost makes you wonder if Gene Wilder or Dustin Hoffman will cameo in season three. Knowing how talented she actually is (and I always thought her an overlooked wonder of that cinematic renaissance period) just makes me bristle even more at Roddenberry treating her like a pair of sexy legs to parade around the screen.

    More than this, you rightly suggest the feeling I always got, even as a child, watching this episode and knowing Gene R's abortive plans for Assignment:Earth. I loved The Prisoner, Secret Agent, and The Avengers, so would have gotten such a kick out of seeing this kind of premise in the spy-fi genre of the time. I haven't read any of the Assignment:Earth novels, but I get the feeling it wouldn't have measured up to the show in my head.

    Any Assignment:Earth series that took place in real life would have been a pale imitation of my own imagination anyway. Gene R's idiotic sexism would have made the show a revolving door of Robertas. And I didn't know that Robert Lansing wasn't even interested in potentially going to series, because I did think he had a kind of otherworldly charisma as Gary Seven, despite some of the problematic moments of patronizing behaviour his character had. The character kind of reminded me of an American spy-fi version of Doctor Who. Yet Lansing still played the role too straight.

    Any real-life Assignment:Earth series would have needed to recast the role with an actor who, like Shatner, could have subverted and played with the lesser scripts given to him as a spy-fi protagonist. Of course it would have to be in a mode proper to that genre.

    In fact, given his later work on Mission:Impossible, I'd say Roddenberry already had a damn-near perfect protagonist for Assignment:Earth in his stable already, who could portray the otherworldly disconnection from the human race as he negotiated the tricky tasks of keeping a civilization from shorting itself out while dealing with the uncomfortable moments of human emotionality that remained unfamiliar to him. The story of Gary Seven could have been that of a man reconnecting with his lost humanity (thanks to his friendship with Roberta and whoever else became recurring characters on the hypothetical show), even as his duty to safeguard humanity tended to hold him apart from it.

    That actor would have been Leonard Nimoy.

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  2. Josh Marsfelder
    September 23, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

    Doctor Who is a great point of comparison. it's so good, actually, that I had to keep myself from making continual comparisons to the Dicks/Letts/Pertwee era, as I think had Assignment: Earth gone to series it probably would have ended up looking eerily similar.

    I really love your imaginary version of Assignment: Earth starring Leonard Nimoy: You're absolutely right, that's a no-brainer casting choice. I also agree about Teri Garr: I didn't talk about her a whole lot in this post, but I'm also a big fan of hers. She's the reason I had a much better memory of this episode then I otherwise would have: She's a delightful stage presence and singlehandedly makes Roberta come across far better then she probably would have otherwise.

    And now you've got me speculating on what a show based on the rapport of Leonard Nimoy and Teri Garr would have looked like.

    Did you know John Byrne wrote a graphic novel miniseries based on Assignment: Earth? I almost considered mentioning it here, but the post was already getting out of hand. Maybe I'll talk about it for the book version.

    The idea of "headcanons" and the cavernous gap between the show you dream about and the show that actually aired is something I've always been fascinated by. In many ways, it may be the one thing that defines my history with the Star Trek franchise. It will be a major theme once I get to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I'm already thinking of ways I can play with the concept.

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  3. Adam Riggio
    September 23, 2013 @ 1:17 pm

    Eerily similar to Doctor Who, but I think still very different. The basic premise would have been quite similar, though in addition to any alien invasions (which probably would have been pretty rare in A:E) and mad scientists, most of the plots would focus on intervening in precise points of complicated geo-political shenanigans to prevent things getting worse than they are already. Nimoy's Gary Seven would have been a much more serious character than Jon Pertwee's Doctor, though Teri Garr's Roberta would have fit the Jo Grant role nicely. It would have been a little more suspenseful, too, because Gary wouldn't have had UNIT.

    Indeed, Teri Garr probably still would have been driven away after Roddenberry was such a douche filming the abortive Lansing pilot, but the role would likely have been recast. Just imagine Lindsay Wagner (The Bionic Woman) playing Roberta and Lynda Carter playing Isis, doing whatever the hell Isis was supposed to do, with Leonard Nimoy in the lead in this geopolitical sci-fi techno-thriller.

    When I was a small person during Doctor Who's Wilderness Years, I actually wrote a huge outline of future plots for the show, mixing my favourite actors and actresses from contemporary television in parts as the Doctor and various companions, making up character arcs and narratives. They were all pretty silly, overall, but I was 13. After all, a headcanon is just a show that hasn't found a producer yet.

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  4. Adam Riggio
    September 23, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

    One way for a Gene Coon or a D. C. Fontana could elevate Assignment: Earth above Roddenberry mediocrity would be to introduce internal conflict into Gary Seven over the details of his mission. As he lives in a ridiculous violent world, and he built friendships with the people in it, he'd start to wonder why he intervened here and not there, this much and no farther. I could see Gary straining to reconcile the humanity and compassion he learns through Roberta with the precision of his task that Isis demands of him.

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  5. Adam Riggio
    September 23, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

    An epic Sweeps Week two-hour special Assignment: Earth as the premiere of season four.

    Season three ended with Gary's friend Johnny (a young Hispanic man who is problematically written every other damn episode) being killed in a gangland shooting he and Isis were powerless to prevent, and Gary fled the New York brownstone where his Aegis office was since season two. It has since been a year, and Roberta has put her strangest job ever behind her. Then Isis finds her in a Brooklyn bar, where she reveals that a new operative has arrived, Louis Ten, played by Ricardo Montalban, who carries out Aegis orders by brutal methods. In an energy weapon shootout, Louis injures Isis, and the women flee to a secluded motel in New Jersey. Roberta can't help Isis recover without the otherworldly aid of Gary. Rather than let Isis die, she activate a distress beacon that will summon Gary to help, but that will also lead Louis straight to them.

    A bitter, bearded Gary Seven (who has been working in a Delaware Foto-Hut van) arrives at the motel and the abandoned industrial park that surrounds it. He and Louis Ten (they allude to a still-mysterious shared history on the Aegis homeworld) have a terse philosophical conversation where Gary argues for the value of humanity and the necessity of peaceful change over violent revolution. Louis agrees that Gary shall repair Isis' injuries, but once she's fully healed, he demands that Gary let Louis kill him. The three escape the motel, possibly killing Louis in an explosion, knowing that some factions among the Aegis will possibly regard Gary, Isis, and Roberta as enemies for this. And we haven't seen the last of the brutal Louis Ten.

    The season finale would be another two-hour adventure (this time during Sweeps Week) on a very expensive Aegis starship, with suitable comedic flourishes from Roberta, who is in space for the first time. The Aegis factions start their war over the future of Earth, and Louis Ten makes his move to destroy Gary Seven forever, and serve as the right-hand of a new, imperial Aegis.

    I think I wrote a ridiculous comment like this on TARDIS Eruditorum a while back too. These are just my wheels naturally spinning.

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  6. Josh Marsfelder
    September 23, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

    By all means, please keep going. This is more entertaining then the stuff I've got to talk about for the next two and a half months.

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  7. Adam Riggio
    September 23, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

    I think I'm going to make my alternate time-displaced history as showrunner for legendary 1970s American sci-fi adventure series Assignment: Earth a feature on my blog over the next few Tuesdays. It'll parse out the entertainment for you while you slog through TOS season three.

    Besides, at least a couple of those episodes are good.

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  8. K. Jones
    September 23, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

    I was always fond of Isis; but this era was a golden one for werecat witches. Isis had a perpetual mystery about her, a classic Familiar. Familiars in general have always fascinated me, historically, but as a whole it's entirely telling of Roddenberry to have a Familiar, a thing of witchcraft and trickery, seduction, vanity, and inscrutable mystery, all rolled into one female form. Isis is the ultimate misrepresentation of women, everywhere (even if we all know an Isis or two). This is witch magic and I do not understand this thing. Witch and Familiar in one.

    Assignment: Earth is an interesting thing in itself to think about (dear god, think of the Wiccan iconography that could be applied to ultra-mod pastiche spy-fi! Think of summoning familiar spirits that come not from an otherworld, but from another world!) Of course, selecting the Halloweeniest black cat amplifies the European Colonial, Puritanical witch-hunting roots of American culture.

    … but it's ultimately a pretty terrible "Star Trek" episode, if those contextually are to be defined as semi-cohesive (even in this prototypical state) adventures of the command unit of the USS Enterprise, boldly going where no man has gone before.

    Nothing too bold here, though, although I share the Pertwee/UNIT-era parallelism. I haven't got much on this one other than how Sixties Hollywood TV banal it feels compared to every other episode.

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  9. Josh Marsfelder
    September 24, 2013 @ 8:54 am

    I too confess to being won over by that sultry cat's charms. Aside from Teri Garr, she was always my favourite part of the episode.

    Isis, like most things involved with Gene Roddenberry productions, probably could have worked very well provided she had a strong central concept. Shapeshifting cat alien with Occult/Wiccan overtones is a fantastic idea for a science-fiction-fantasy show, but not when, as you say, Roddenberry makes her a classic familiar and generic Kindergarten Halloween Black cat to boot.

    On the one hand I want to give Roddenberry credit for being one of the first people to play with the idea of blending sci-fi with Forteana and spirituality, but I want to smack him with the other for being so legendarily shitty at it.

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  10. Daru
    October 4, 2013 @ 12:27 am

    Great post Josh!

    I was expecting something wonderful for this post and you delivered. I am really enjoying the alternate realities that you are weaving into the essays – I can see that potentially growing as your work continues.

    K.Jones – yes I could see the Occult /Wiccan references with Isis as the cat. I remember liking that, but yes a big shame it gets painted all over with Roddenberry's big generic brush.

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  11. Josh Marsfelder
    October 4, 2013 @ 7:52 am

    You are quite perceptive 🙂

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  12. BerserkRL
    December 14, 2013 @ 11:14 pm

    Robert Lansing, who plays Gary Seven, made it very clear he was unwilling to commit to a television series

    No, problem, Gary could just have regenerated.

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